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Let Me Tell You About A Man I Knew

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No one knows the name of 'the painter' who comes to the asylum in St Remy in the south of France, but they see his wild, red hair and news of his savaged ear soon circulates in the village and comes to the notice of the wife of the asylum's doctor. She feels herself drawn to him and learns that his presence is disturbing - and not just to her either. But back she goes - again and again. Until she is banned, but still she makes her way over the wall, through the garden to talk to this apparently mad and passionate man. And the consequences of her indiscretion, of what van Gogh comes to mean to her, of what it will do to her marriage, her life once she has touched danger and passion will have far reaching effects - both surprisingly catastrophic and tender.

272 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 2016

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About the author

Susan Fletcher

13 books407 followers
Librarian Note: There is more than one author in the GoodReads database with this name. See this thread for more information.

Susan Fletcher is the author of Eve Green, which won the Whitbread Award for First Novel, Oystercatchers, and Corrag. She lives in the United Kingdom.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 119 reviews
Profile Image for Candi.
622 reviews4,716 followers
June 26, 2021
“… she has been here for thirty years… every day and night feel the same… she used to think of other countries, force doors, wear yellow silk – but those days feel like a dream she had, and she hasn’t really thought of them but she’s thinking of them now.”

Let me tell you about a book I read - a luminous, energizing sort of novel, yet delicately written, like a whisper in your ear that somehow gathers force as you let it all sink in. Just as the mistral that blew into the town of Saint-Rémy-de-Provence in the south of France intensified the emotions of the inhabitants, this novel hinted at restlessness and change. One year the autumnal wind brought more than its usual share of influence, however. It brought Vincent van Gogh to the asylum of Saint-Paul-de-Mausole where he lived and was treated for mental illness from 1889 to 1890.

“… this man is on fire or he seems to be burning for his beard is a flame of bright-orange and red. It’s copper and autumn and rust. It is fox, perhaps, or the pelt of a deer. The shade of fevered skin.”

But this is not really van Gogh’s story. This is about Jeanne Trabuc, wife to Charles Trabuc , one of the doctors charged with van Gogh’s care. Both Jeanne and Charles are real-life figures that van Gogh painted, but here they are shaped into vivid characters through the artistry of Susan Fletcher’s beautiful prose. This is the story of a woman who passed by the adventures and dreams of her childhood, a mother who loved her children dearly enough to let them go, and a marriage that wilted over the years of routines and misunderstandings. Her forbidden friendship with van Gogh stirred those buried passions and longings of her youth. When she sits for a painting, those feelings resurface and make Jeanne question these last thirty-some years of her quiet life.

“How did I become fifty-five? And I’ve been a mother and wife, and Salle told me these were not minor things and I’m grateful for being both, but I’ll only be fifty-six and then fifty-seven and fifty-eight, and there’ll be no change. When he painted me… It felt new. I felt I was being looked at… I felt as I might have felt if I’d ever got there – to Abyssinia, or anywhere else on the globe. As if I was mattering.”

I’ve read Susan Fletcher before and each time she astounds me. I found myself catching my breath several times while reading this one. She highlights how human beings often suffer from a lack of clear communication with one another. How we jump to conclusions and judge one another too quickly. If you’re fortunate enough to recognize it, perhaps someone comes into your life and points you in the right direction. He or she may teach you a little something about yourself and others and the world around you. Fletcher clearly marvels at and has a genuine respect for the natural world. Her descriptions firmly plant you in the realm she has created in her stories. In this novel, it was a pleasure to read more about van Gogh’s work. It was here in Saint-Rémy that he produced some of his most famed paintings. In the author’s note, Susan Fletcher explains how she was inspired to write this after reading some of the letters written by van Gogh to his brother. She takes a piece of history and imbues it with life, just as van Gogh evoked movement and light with his layered brush strokes.

“There’s life in painting, I know there is. It fills my veins. It opens my eyes so that I can see most clearly with a brush in my hand. But there’s life in being painted too.”

Fletcher is one of my favorite novelists. I have no idea why she’s not more widely read. When I picked up Witch Light six years ago, I didn’t know anyone else on Goodreads or otherwise that had even heard of that book. I read no reviews for it. I picked it up on a whim and was instantly enchanted. I’ve been telling friends ever since to please read it! I think most that have heeded my friendly little nudge have been wholly satisfied as well. Life is just a little brighter when you share a love for a book with a friend.

“These are small days and you are not small-hearted.”

“The heart, she thinks, is the painter. Love, and moments like this, are the art.”
Profile Image for Elyse Walters.
4,010 reviews605 followers
July 21, 2021
There is a Vincent Van Gogh exhibit in the San Francisco Bay Area happening these days. I haven’t been successful in snatching tickets.
I had been hoping to purchase tickets to celebrate Paul’s birthday in September—but with no luck….
In the meantime….
I’ve been viewing Van Gogh paintings recently….(Van Gogh being one of my favorite artists)…

I also had not ‘yet’ read anything by Susan Fletcher — the British author—but had been wanting to read ‘all’ of her books since reading reviews by several friends on Goodreads, (Candi, Sara, Diane).
Sometimes we ‘just know’ when an author is going to resonate with us….even before we open their book. I knew this in my gut about Susan Fletcher. Turned out to be true.
I downloaded two ebooks - (“Corrag” and “The Silver Dark Sea” —-
added “The Highland Witch” to my Audible playlist — and ordered two physical books: “The Oystercatchers” and - THIS BOOK > “Let Me tell you about a man I Knew”)….
I could have easily started with any of the Fletcher books I now own —
But I chose this novel to read first - (a gorgeous physical copy), as it seemed most fitting with my recent Vincent Van Gogh photo-dabbling of his works.

I had no idea how MANY FABULOUS paintings - Van Gogh painted ‘during’ the year he admitted himself to the psychiatric hospital of Saint-Remy-de-Mausole. Throughout his twelve-month confinement, he continued to paint.
I counted around 60 paintings he did during his stay. THEY ARE SOOOOO BEAUTIFUL.
….In addition to the picturesque wheat fields, olive groves, cypresses, roses, and irises in and around the monastery, Van Gogh captured interior views of the asylum, itself….[there is a colorful/powerful/hollow/ lonely/haunting painting of the asylum corridors], > can be found online: thank you Google ….
….Van Gogh wanted to impress his brother, Theo, of his new hospital surroundings— give his brother the impression he was thriving — so he sent the interior asylum photo of the corridor to Theo during his stay.
Unfortunately Van Gogh’s time spent at the asylum did not prove to be the cure he needed. Van Gogh died soon after he left: by suicide.

THIS NOVEL….(though),….is less about Van Gogh’s own life in totality — yet very influential- but more directly - it’s about the wife of the warden, Jeanne Trabuc, that he meets at the hospital.
In a letter to Theo, Van Gogh's brother, he writes (of middle aged Jeanne Trabuc),
…..”a woman whose looks have faded, a poor soul, resigned to her fate, nothing out of the ordinary and so insignificant that I simply long to paint that dusty blade of grass. I talked to her sometimes when I was doing some olive trees behind their little house, Andy she told me then that she didn’t believe I was ill—in fact, you would now say the same if you saw me working, my mind clear and my fingers so sure….” 1889

Van Gogh was drawn to the ordinary - the unremarkable- [I am too - maybe that’s why I love his paintings so much, and quiet character driven reflective novels]….
Jeanne Trabuc represented ‘ordinary’ …..as ordinary as ordinary can be.
…..what Susan Fletcher did was ‘write’ extraordinary—-about a middle age woman’s ordinary life —- (similar in my opinion as Van Gogh ‘painted’ ordinary life > extraordinary).

Printed words of truth:
right on the top of the book cover …..(taken from the Guardian)
….Jeanne Trabuc:
“A woman, who would, without, Van Gogh, have been entirely forgotten” — I find it sad - true - and makes me wonder about the beautiful ordinary people I love- including my own aging life.

To me…there’s so much depth that comes alive in this novel….
We learn a lot about the woman Jeanne Trabuc was. I must admit - even sadly- that I related to Jeanne in many ways. (married a man she loved)….but/and….I, too, like Jeanne am - kinda- past my prime.
and with the past almost two years since the beginning days of covid—shrunken days have never felt more real. As the global world connects us - countries - technology serves us with instant international news - (we’ve many faster opportunities to connect with other wonderful people all over the globe)…
…..our own daily routines - our individual lives - past a certain age (kids have left home, spouses become sick, friends with their own full plates of issues)….life can feel small - we become confined to our simple home surroundings….
This novel portrays this image through Jeanne…..exquisitely.

Susan Fletcher ‘writes’ like a ‘painter’….or is it ‘paints’ her words?
All I know is that I felt I understood words- sentences -that expressed feelings of “not unhappy exactly”…..
“chance meetings”
“the opportunity to feel more vibrant- more bold - more alive” …[understanding that we each have memories of meeting that rare person - who comes into our lives -maybe only for a limited amount of time]….but they give us joy, hope, added vitality that’s so intoxicating —my God > we fall excitedly in love with LIFE - with LOVE itself - we ‘feel’ that piece of ourselves that has been lying dormant for years —
It’s that self we soooo miss -of ourselves- when we WERE YOUNGER….
a time when we were more bouncy and perky …..
but sometimes -
even in middle age - or late age — ordinary moments bumps up AGAIN with something delicious…..(perhaps a second chance at life’s rich vitality)…..Don’t many of us - kinda- secretly wish for that EXUBERANT ALIVENESS FEELING ….just ONE MORE TIME …. before we die?
“I AM WOMAN” ….(thinking of the hit song by Helen Reddy)
Side note: Helen Reddy died last year- September, 2020. Her song “I Am Woman” peaked at number 2 on the Australian digital sales chart.

Well…Susan Fletcher gave Jeanne Trabuc a second life of vitality. —
Actually - she re-created - this book from inspiration and research she found from letters that Vincent van Gogh and his brother, Theo exchanged with each other.
I totally get (with pleasure), that Susan Fletcher discovered that Van Gogh was a tender, a contemplative writer, himself…. very different from the man she assumed he was.

Susan Fletcher - wrote in her notes:
“I tried to be historically accurate —in terms of Vincent’s attacks, moods and the paintings he created during his time at Saint-Paul-de-Mausole. But inevitably, changes have been made for the novel’s sake. Furthermore, whilst both Charles(Jeanne’s husband), and Jeanne Trabuc existed (as did the other characters we meet: Peyton, Poulet, and Salles), ……
I’d like to stress that their private histories, personalities, relationships, children and the events that take place within this book are entirely my own making. Wherever they are now, I hope they don’t mind”

I loved this book (sorry there is not an ebook)….but this 263 paper book is a treasure. Lovely to the touch.
I highly recommend it to the reflective-type-of readers.

“Of all the memories Jeanne has of the man who came in May 1989 and stayed for a year, this is the clearest one: how’s he looked up and smiled. He was painting; she was talking of Les Alpilles, so he lowered his brush, pushed back the brim of his hat with his fist to see her better, hear her more clearly—and suddenly smiled. Teeth and bright eyes. A boy. A son. A beard of rust and light”.
Profile Image for Sara.
Author 1 book563 followers
June 22, 2021
People go. And some will be remembered, leave their mark. But some will not.

This is the story of Jeanne Trabuc, a real person, the wife of Charles Trabuc, the warden of the Asylum at Saint-Remy, where Vincent Van Gogh received treatment, and where he painted some of his most famous paintings, including Starry Night. The person is real, the novel is fiction, but Susan Fletcher gives us a beautiful portrait of the person Jeanne Trabuc might easily have been. I couldn’t help thinking, when I read the quote above, that Jeanne Trabuc was someone who would have been wholly forgotten had she not come in contact with Van Gogh, who painted her, and thus made her name one that would not be buried in the passage of time.

But, this story is not really about Van Gogh, nor is it entirely about that painting, although the painting plays a part in Jeanne’s story, of course. Against the background of the asylum, a kind of prison in itself, we see the imprisonment of minds and the narrowness of a woman’s married life. Fletcher’s descriptions are wonderful, and early on she gives us a subtle hint about Jeanne’s life and marriage.

The paths have narrowed and the benches are stained by bird droppings and lichen, and as Jeanne walks towards the building itself she can feel her skirt brushing against thistles and irises and a fallen branch, and she thinks of the bars on the windows, the flaking paint and the leather straps and she feels the ring on her finger, turns it with the pad of her thumb.

There are some very poignant moments in the novel, moments to which I could relate entirely, the ones with her father hit very close to home. Jeanne’s love for her father and her three sons was very unselfish, and her relationship with Van Gogh, a man who was ridiculed by the town’s population for both his appearance and his epileptic seizures, was so genuine and kind that it was impossible to feel indifferent to her entrapment. But Susan Fletcher does not write predictably, and there are surprises for the reader that give the story a dimension beyond the obvious ones at the beginning.

There are lovely passages that I marked while reading, that I would absolutely love to share, but I fear they would reveal more of the story than I would care to give away...so, I will simply hope that others will pick up the book and discover the lovely passages and hidden surprises for themselves.

In case it isn’t clear, I am a fan of Susan Fletcher. Her novel Corrag, also titled Witch Light, is one of the best out there. Everyone should read it. She is a surprise writer, because no two of her books are alike. She writes with passion and intelligence, and she often plumbs depths you are not expecting. An added bonus for this book was it centering around Van Gogh, who is a favorite painter and whose life I have always found fascinating.

Profile Image for Magdalena aka A Bookaholic Swede.
1,937 reviews798 followers
May 15, 2021
I think one of the reasons that I enjoyed this book so much is that Susan Fletcher manages to write a story about Vincent van Gogh's stay at the hospital of Saint-Paul-de Mausole and his meetings with Jeanne Trabuc, and yet Fletcher doesn't let Vincent take over the story. That could easily have happened, he is a charismatic man, but the book is pretty much Jeanne's story, her recollections about her childhood, her marriage life as she steals away moments to talk to the mad painter. Meetings she is forbidden since her husband doesn't want her to meet the patients, but she does it anyway.

And through the book, we get to know Jeanne, the girl she was, and the woman she is now. Her life with her husband, and her three now grown children. It's the meetings with Vincent van Gogh that make her realize what she is missing in life, he brings the world to her and Jeanne starts to change, and suddenly the silent woman isn't so silent anymore. But, can she make her husband see that the changes are for the good that she is turning into the woman she used to be?

This is a book I'm very glad I read. Fletcher has a way of writing that makes the story come alive, there is a flow in the text and I can easily imagine everything she has written. She describes the houses, the people, the country, and the paintings well,

I liked this book very much. I liked that the story is about an ordinary woman that for a short while knew one of the greatest painters that have ever lived. I loved the cover to the book with Jeanne and the painting of Starry Night, I didn't know that Vincent van Gogh painted some of his most famous work at the hospital of Saint-Paul-de Mausole including Starry Night.

I want to thank Virago for providing me with a free copy for an honest review!
September 14, 2021
4.5 stars rounded up! 🌠🌠🌠🌠

This has been one surprising discovery! 🤩 A captivating tale of a common woman, Jeanne Trabuc, whose character gains narrative focus and establishes itself as the dominant protagonist of the story, with the lurking and seemingly ubiquitous shadow of the intriguing and impressive Dutchman, Vincent Van Gogh, transferred to Saint Paul-de-Mausole under the care and surveillance of the asylum warden, Charles Trabuc (the husband).

The forceful search for identity and meaning is the pivotal theme of the narrative, generating tension and ambivalence through the encountering personalities (and actual meetings) of an obedient wife who has against her own will set all her past liveliness at bay and is apt at keeping to the side of the things on one hand; and a tormented self-harming soul with an overflowing artistic impulse, as well as a fame for idiosyncratic behaviour and an unleashed sense of freedom on the other.

The narrative is pleasantly intimate in tone; laconic yet powerful and introspective; bursting with quiet emotion and moulded by the honest pursuit of closeness in marriage; also seductive in the way it engrosses the reader. It is a tribute to the sense of waste suffered by the soul as it registers the hollow passage of time, set against the serene unchanging landscape of St Remy that is in turn punctured by the periodic spasms of patients at the asylum. The latter’s yearning for peace and calm is counterbalanced by the heart’s yearning for something more, as evinced by the unassuming protagonist’s simple and true reflections, as well as curiosities and temptation to break free. The narrative too unfolds delicately, alternating between the present inner conflicts and Jeanne’s coming of age (caring for her ailing father, and agreeing to a marriage with the disciplined yet quietly loving Charles Trabuc) in a way that simulates the slow painful flowing and resurfacing of events that make up her life. There is also a fine thread, like the silk and treasures they used to sell at her father’s haberdashery, that links her childhood wanderings (doing handstands in Place Lamartine, her impatience with schooling, etc) to her friendship with Laure (who unlike her chooses to abandon her husband and explore the wonders of the world), but even more so to the idea of that which the Dutchman symbolises in her imagination, with recurrent reference to his daring unclothed presence in that very same Place Lamartine.

I recall being initially drawn to this book mainly because of the fictionalisation of Van Gogh’s stay at Saint-Paul, yet this turned out to be so much more than I had expected. I do feel that appreciators of Van Gogh’s art will be particularly mesmerised by this novel, but in no way should this be a limiting factor in consideration of this book.

Such beautiful narration from Susan Fletcher – keenly recommended🌹!
Profile Image for Historical Fiction.
924 reviews602 followers
July 4, 2016
Find this and other reviews at: http://flashlightcommentary.blogspot....

As I write this commentary, only fourteen readers have rated Susan Fletcher’s Let Me Tell You About a Man I Knew on Goodreads. Seven have issued the book a flawless five stars, while another six have issued appreciative fours. Only one reader has gone lower and in all honesty, I’m quite comfortable being a lone dissenter. What works for one reader doesn’t always work for another and there’s nothing wrong with that so long as we can respect the subjective nature of reviews and the diverse opinions they represent.

Getting back to the story at hand, I found Fletcher’s prose beautiful and thought her descriptions of the asylum of Saint Paul de Mausole in Provence strikingly original. I was familiar with Van Gogh before reading this piece, but this is the first time I’ve seen any part of his life fictionalized and I found a lot of merit in Fletcher’s characterization of the famed artist. That said, I struggled with the author’s tone and found it incredibly difficult to get lost in her narrative.

Fletcher’s work is intensely introspective. The approach holds a lot of appeal for some readers, but my tastes are a little different. I liked Jeanne well-enough, but her marital problems and personal trials didn’t interest me. I found the development and pacing ponderous and often caught my mind wandering to more immersive fiction. There’s something to be said Fletcher’s themes, the oppressive loneliness of an empty marriage and the fragility of broken souls, but I favor more energetic fiction with overt movement and dramatic intrigue.

In sum, Let Me Tell You About a Man I Knew was not my kind of book. I liked the story, but wasn’t inspired by it. The characters didn’t take up residence in my mind’s eye or capture my imagination. I appreciate the piece for its historic scope, but don’t think I’ll be recommending it to other readers very often.
Profile Image for The Book Whisperer (aka Boof).
343 reviews235 followers
April 25, 2017
This weekend I sat in the garden, the sun shining, and read the most beautiful, lyrical and vividly written book – Let Me Tell You About A Man I Knew. This isn’t the first book I have read by this author (more on that later) so I knew that I was in for a treat and I wasn’t let down in the slightest.

This book is a feast for the senses. From the very first sentence, I was whisked immediately away to the Provencial countryside as a new spring is dawning and I was immersed in colours and fragrances and sensations that can only be brought about by the most talented author. I was there under the lime tree, I felt the breeze lift the hem of my skirt, and heard the parched earth drink the water from the upturned pail.

The man of the book title is, in fact, Vincent van Gogh, however, he isn’t the protagonist; that is Jeanne Trabuc. Van Gogh is more of a supporting character to enable Jeanne to evolve and blossom, and the story is really hers. The year is 1889 and set in the Saint-Paul Asylum, Saint-Rémy, where Van Gogh admitted himself and was a patient for a year, painting some of his most loved paintings during that time before he became more well known. Jeanne lives with her husband Charles in a little white cottage next to the asylum in the French countryside as Charles is the Manager there. Jeanne, whose three grown up sons have all left home, lives by the rules she has become accustomed to over the years and is forbidden to enter the asylum grounds but she finds a way to meet with Vincent often and through their conversations while he paints, she learns to remember the woman (and child) she was; the playful, independent girl who grew up with just her belovèd Father and wore yellow silk dresses, wore her hair unpinned, and who did handstands in the square. It’s an incredibly moving story as Jeanne considers her life and contemplates her future. Van Gogh’s paintings awaken something in her; a desire and a longing for something more than the life of conformity and routine.

Seven years ago, I interviewed this author about her book Corrag (which is now re-published as Witch Light and is still one of the most perfect books I’ve ever read) and in this interview, she explained about spending half-an-hour of watching a bumble bee visit foxgloves, writing down how it looked and sounded, and I can completely see this. The scenes of nature in both books are exquisite; full of vibrancy and sentiment. Just stunning.
When I read a book I want to believe I’m right there in the pages. Few authors make me feel this as well as Susan Fletcher. Others that have had a similar impact are Joanne Harris (particularly the Chocolat series) and more recently Sealskin by Su Bristow.

This book was a joy to read from start to finish. Susan Fletcher can write. I mean, REALLY write. If you love beautiful storytelling and pitch-perfect prose, you need to read this book. I cannot recommend highly enough.
Profile Image for Rebecca.
3,671 reviews2,665 followers
October 10, 2016
This historical novel about the year Vincent Van Gogh spent at the mental hospital of Saint-Paul-de-Mausole (1889–90) is from the perspective of the warden’s wife, Jeanne Trabuc. Now 55 and with three grown sons, Jeanne fears life’s adventures and sensual pleasures are over for her. Yet a friendship with this volatile new Dutchman makes her think that maybe she can reclaim an attitude of excited anticipation.

If what you actually want is a book about van Gogh, you’d be better off reading Barbara Stok’s graphic novel, Vincent, and dipping into his letters. This is only peripherally about van Gogh; it’s more a picture of women’s circumscribed life in the late nineteenth century. I’d compare it most closely to Tracy Chevalier’s The Virgin Blue and Susan Vreeland’s Lisette’s List. I was drawn into Jeanne’s history enough to keep reading, but I didn’t always find the staccato style very pleasant, e.g. “As Laure had done. Not a feathered flight, and not seen. But she had left here all the same. Four years ago, exactly. In her dark-red travelling coat. She’d been gone by first light.”

Portrait of Madame Trabuc
Portrait of Trabuc, an Attendant at Saint-Paul Hospital
Profile Image for Judi.
597 reviews40 followers
October 23, 2022
Engaging book. Jeanne, the core person in this story, reminds me so much of the story and expectations in my Mom's life. Both strong independent, smart females. Jeanne and my Mom grew up in rural, remote, poor environments. Both Mom and Jeanne as females were not treasured in their families. More of a burden. Having a son born into a family resulted in possible a bit of survival coin and the capacity to address needed family labor.
Jeanne labors at home and meanders, explores the surrounds of the nearby insane asylum. One day she encounters The Dutchman, a painter and inmate at the asylum. She finds him engaging, he addresses her questions, she loves his work. She learns. She learns indeed! She becomes a strong, independent, thinking woman.
My Mom was urged to drop out of high school to pursue labor. She didn't. She attended school and became a devoted nanny to a family with several children. She was expected to marry a local fellow, a high school graduate, settle nearby. Ditto life.
When my Mom graduated from high school the family that she had been a nanny for opted to move to Southern California. She went with them as a nanny. Her whole life changed completely for the best after that. She never looked back.
For me this book is very relatable.

Profile Image for Terry.
317 reviews70 followers
June 18, 2021
As you might gather from the book’s cover, blurbs or reviews, there is a fair amount of Vincent Van Gogh in this book, but it is really a story about a woman, the wife of the head of the hospital where the painter is trying to find a cure. Saint-Remy-de-Provence is where some of Van Gogh’s most loved works were painted. This book is really the story of a woman who has raised her children and finds her life at middle age to be too circumscribed — a 1970s women’s movement theme. This theme may resonate with some women still. She encounters the painter and her outlook on life is changed.

Read the author’s note at the end to understand her inspiration for the book because it is quite interesting.

This book starts slow but picks up as it is being read. By the end, four stars.

What put me off was its style:
- It is told in the present tense - strange (untrustworthy?) for a book set in 1889-1890.
- The author uses a lot of phrases, in place of real sentences. I don’t mind that every now and then, but I don’t care for whole paragraphs of them.

I rather liked where it went in the end, which I won’t spoil here. I will just say, hang in there.
February 25, 2017
A very gentle story of a marriage that struggled and how a change in the wind can bring about something rather special.
Reminiscent of Joanne Harris or Kate Mosse
Read in two sittings ~ I was temporarily transported to Provence 1889......colours, descriptions!!
My kind of book......

Full Review as published on Tripfiction..

‘Provence ~ May 1889

He’s foreign. Dutch I think. A strange man. Wild. And self-wounded, I hear – violently so’

Let Me Tell You About A Man I Knew is a beautiful novel written by Susan Fletcher. Published by Virago Press in 2016, I immediately knew that here was a book I would love..

Before I begin my review of this novel I would like to share with you an excerpt from Susan Fletcher.

‘The idea for this book grew as I read a few of the many letters that passed between Vincent van Gogh and his brother Theo. This contemplative, tender writer seemed so different from the man I’d assumed van Gogh to be. His year at Saint-Remy specifically intrigued me – the asylum, the landscape around it and how he produced his finest work when he was perhaps, at his most ill. Charles and Jeanne Trabuc existed (as did Peyron, Poulet and Salles)…..’

Here is a novel that gently sweeps you along through the landscape of Provence.

Jeanne and her husband Charles live beside the hospital of Saint-Paul-de-Mausole. Surrounded by olive groves, with the scent of herbs tormenting your senses, this is a hospital where those with matters-of-the-mind are institutionalised for a stay, some longer than others.

Charles and Jeanne Trabuc have lived in the vicinity all of their married life, as Charles is the curator of the facility. Living in the shadow of these people with fragile minds has taken it’s toll on their marriage. With the children long moved on, Jeanne struggles to raise her head every day as the hours all seem to blend into one.

With the most stunning scenery on her doorstep, it’s very hard to believe how anyone could be so unsettled but Jeanne is frustrated. She has been looking at the same scene day in day out. As issues have arisen at the clinic Charles work keeps him away from her for longer and Jeanne is lonely.

Originally coming from Arle, Jeanne is used to the hub-bub of people going about their daily lives. Here on the foothills of Les Alpilles, all Jeanne hears is the cicadas clicking and the beginnings of The Mistral, ‘Mistrau in the local tongue. Wind of change, of shallow sleep’

News of an impending arrival at the clinic is met with curiosity and excitement. There has been nobody new for quite some time and this visitor brings a change, like the changing wind itself.

Vincent van Gogh, with his fiery red hair, his fox like appearance and his very distinctive smell opens up a whole new world for Jeanne.

‘There isn’t a colour on his palette that’s brighter than his own…His eyebrows too. They’re thick, almost blond. And his eyes themselves might have matched the sky above the Camargue if she’d ever seen that sky – the bluest blue, with birds and shadows blowing through, and yet she can imagine these eyes growing dark.’

Charles leads a very strict life after coming back from the Crimean War and he has invoked many rules over their married life. With the arrival of ‘The Dutchman’, Jeanne starts to open her eyes a little more to the life she has been leading. She begins to see the beauty in the landscape around her and takes time to properly look at the sway of a leaf, the colour of a flower, the scent of an herb.

The more of this she is exposed to, the hungrier Jeanne gets. Her innocent, yet forbidden, meetings with van Gogh has her greedy for more. No longer satisfied with the secluded life she leads, Jeanne returns to the memories of her youth. She was an excitable daring child always up for adventure, but this sense of spirit has been knocked out of her over the years, Van Gogh is the catalyst that shakes her up out of this reverie.

Susan Fletcher has written a glorious novel, where every page turned takes your senses on a trip.

While this novel is a story made up of both historical fact and fiction, it is also an escape for the reader to Provence. I suspect, the landscape is no different today than it was in 1889. The story of Jeanne and Charles Trabuc is a beautiful love story. Two people who have grown apart over the years, who struggled to see what had become of them, suddenly have their eyes opened.

Vincent van Gogh comes into their lives like The Mistral and causes chaos as he paints but yet, like The Mistral, he moves on, with devastation in his trail followed by hope and the rediscovery of oneself and of love.

Let Me Tell You About A Man I Knew is a tender, compassionate tale, with Provence and it’s surroundings as a stunning backdrop. I love historical fiction and without doubt this book ticked all the boxes for me.
Profile Image for Deborah Pickstone.
852 reviews91 followers
July 25, 2016
Another historical hero of mine. Van Gogh is possibly the most original painter in history (my opinion) and certainly one of the most influential. How surprised he would have been to know that! The novel is a fairly quiet story in which he features almost as an aside - it tells the story of the resolution of the marriage of Jeanne and Charles Trebuc, whose portraits Vincent painted during his stay at the asylum in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence. This is of course purely a fictional account though the details involving van Gogh appear to be mainly accurate and include direct quotes from his letters. As an examination of what does not get said between a couple in the course of a long marriage and the effect when it finally gets said this is a quiet but meaningful psychological picture. Jeanne and Charles are both very real characters and likable too.

No fireworks here but worth reading even if van Gogh means nothing to you.
Profile Image for Vera.
Author 0 books15 followers
June 11, 2023
Ein wundervoller, bewegender Roman über die 55-jährige Jeanne, die als Kind voller Abenteuerlust war. In ihrer Ehe mit Charles, einem ehemaligen Soldaten im Krimkrieg der 1850er Jahre und jetzt Leiter der Nervenheilanstalt nahe Arles, hat sie aber gelernt, ihre Gefühle zurückzustecken und sich dem Leben als Ehefrau zu fügen. Das ändert sich, als "Der Holländer" in die Klinik aufgenommen wird. Er geht hinaus in die Olivenhaine und malt gänzlich unkonventionell. Jeanne fühlt sich magisch angezogen von diesem Mann, der nichts auf die üblichen Verhaltensregeln, dörflichem Tratsch und Etikette gibt. Inspiriert von dem Maler setzt sie sich mit ihrem eigenen kleinen, von eingeschlichenen Gewohnheiten geprägten Leben auseinander und beginnt sich immer stärker nach der anfänglichen Liebe zurückzusehnen, die Charles und sie vor 25 Jahren noch teilten. Die Gespräche mit Vincent lassen die frühere Jeanne und ihre Beziehung zu Charles wieder aufleben. Ich war wirklich sehr gerührt von der Erzählweise, von Jeanne's Gedanken und die Unterhaltungen, die sie führt. Ein weiteres Highlight in diesem Jahr.
803 reviews
September 25, 2022
I am so disappointed. I love SF's work but I was bored with this. I struggled with it. I didn't know what I was looking for - madness, art, isolation, yeah they are all there but ....... and ....... so ........
Bits were interesting. The piece is lyrical. Yet it's going nowhere.
Profile Image for luce (that loser crying on the n° 2 bus).
1,438 reviews4,048 followers
August 29, 2021
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To tell the truth, towards the end, I was tempted to abandon this. The first few chapters are undoubtedly well written and alluring, sadly, the story never really progresses from that. I think that the main issue I had with Let Me Tell You About a Man I Knew is that it was trying to be two different novels: one of which concerns Vincent van Gogh's stay at the hospital of Saint-Paul-de Mausole while the other is of a woman in the late 19th century and her uncertainty over her relationship with her husband and her life in general. Sadly, neither storyline is well executed. The need to include two different concepts damages their outcome.
The writing itself is fluid and at times even poetic. Fletcher's prose could often be lyrical and graceful.
The setting did not feel very authentic so much so that I often forgot when the book was actually taking place in. Let Me Tell You About a Man I Knew lacks the historical accuracy and atmosphere of books such as The Wild Girl by Kate Forsyth.
Because of this, I was never truly 'taken' by it. Especially given Fletcher's constant referring to Vincent van Gogh as 'the Dutchman' or 'him': by doing this she seemed to be avoiding 'naming names' despite having written about an actual renown artist. He barely features in the story and his brief appearances and conversations with the Jeanne felt somewhat unrealistic and clumsy.
His character never fitted into the story. He was included in a way that made him unbelievable and unnecessary. Perhaps Fletcher was afraid of portraying him inaccurately. Her hesitancy shows in his vacant depiction. His lacklustre characterization also affects Jeanne's believability: she is fascinated by him when he does not give her any reason to be.
The story also concerns Jeanne's contemplation of her life. A woman in her late fifties she leads a quiet existence at her husband's side reminiscing about her youth. Between missing her sons and feeling that her relationship with her husband is wavering, she yearns for something more. Her immediate interest over Vincent was unjustified. I didn't feel to sympathetic towards her because her character never offers anything substantial.
Still, I did enjoy reading of her childhood.
Five Quarters of the Orange – a book that shares a similar setting – also has a protagonist who reminiscence about her youth in a much better way; for one the narrator of the book is interesting and the story's setting is incredibly atmospheric.
All in all, Let Me Tell You About a Man I Knew never fulfills the potential of its first chapters. There are many other books that manage similar concepts a lot better.
593 reviews24 followers
July 30, 2016
My primary reading these days falls into the SFF bracket without doubt, however, there are certain authors that I really enjoy that step outside that field that I always want to read and Susan Fletcher is one of those authors. I first fell in love with her writing after reading Witch Light (which I think is also known as Corrag). Fletcher has a way of writing things that simply make them stand out from the page. Her writing is beautiful and evocative and this title is no exception.

Let Me Tell You About a Man I Knew brings to us a story about Jeanne Trabuc. Jeanne’s husband runs the hospital at Saint-Paul-de Mausole and the hospital is about to receive a new patient who will certainly stir things up a lot. Not to beat about the bush the patient in question is Vincent Van Gogh and this book brings to us a fictionalised account of his time spent at the hospital in Provence following the troubled period in which he cut off part of his ear.

To be clear, this is very much Jeanne’s story but the arrival of VvG is definitely the catalyst that sparks a change in Jeanne during which she reflects on her own life. Jeanne and her husband are at a quite stage of their life. Their sons have grown and left home to start their own life stories and Jeanne finds herself a little lonely and at something of a loose end. Her interest is sparked by this new addition to the hospital and she finds herself visiting him in spite of her husband’s express wishes that she have no contact with any of the patients.

This story is a slice of introspection during which Jeanne looks back at her life as a young girl and a mother reflecting on her own and her children’s hopes and wishes.

Why I liked this. I loved reading those parts of the story in which VvG made an appearance, his description and the imaginary conversations with Jeanne were really intriguing, enough in fact to make me go and read up a little more of VvG’s life story and take a look at the pictures he painted during his time in Provence. Also, and unsurprisingly for me, I loved the writing. Fletcher is a beautiful writer and Provence is a beautiful place that provided this author with some wonderful material to work with. The startling sunshine, the intensity of the flowers, the striking starlit sky and so much more. The writing is, put simply, evocative.

This is only a fairly short story but it really caught my attention. Jeanne and her husband may not be the most dynamic characters that you’ll ever read about and there’s certainly no swords and sorcery to be found here, but nonetheless this story captured my attention and in fact kept it long after I finished the book.

A quiet and thoughtful story, beautifully written and with an intriguing glimpse into the life of a brilliant and influential artist.

I received a copy of this courtesy of the publishers through Netgalley for which my thanks. The above is my own opinion.
Profile Image for Elite Group.
3,062 reviews51 followers
July 8, 2016
Emotionally touching and beautifully crafted.

Set in the town of St Remy in the south of France, 'Let Me Tell You About a Man I Know' tells the story of Jeanne Trabuc, wife of the warden of the mental asylum Saint Paul de Mausole. With her 3 sons having grown up and left home and her husband Charles absorbed in his work at the hospital, Jeanne is lonely. However, when a new patient arrives at the asylum - a Dutch painter who was sent over from the nearby town of Arles after viciously cutting off his own ear - Jeanne can't help but be intrigued by this strange man. Despite her husband's rules that she doesn't enter the hospital grounds or interact with the patients, Jeanne finds herself drawn to the artist and begins visiting him as he paints around the hospital. The two strike up a friendship and the consequences of this will change Jeanne's life, her marriage and her world.

I found this a really lovely book to read. The character of Jeanne was one of the most multi-dimensional depictions I've encountered in a book and I really felt that I began to know her and her life from reading this story. The portrayal of Van Gogh - as, of course, the 'mad' Dutch artist is him - was also very well done, allowing a unique insight into his troubled mind but not distracting entirely from the main story, which was of Jeanne and her faltering relationship with her husband. I found the story progressed well and there were never any dull points, and it also didn't feel rushed despite covering the entire year that Van Gogh spent in St Remy. The descriptions of the Provencale countryside and the lives of the people who live there were also very beautifully written and I particularly liked the references made to some of Van Gogh's well known paintings, many of which I did not realise were created during his time in the asylum. It was also interesting to look up the paintings of Jeanne and Charles themselves and the knowledge that they were real people made the emotional impact of the story all the stronger.

I gave this book 5 stars as it was genuinely enjoyable to read and very touching in its depictions of relationships of all sorts - husband and wife, mother and son, friends. I would recommend it to anyone interested in history or art and would very much like to read more from this author.


Breakaway Reviewers received a copy of the book to review.

Profile Image for Ana Ovejero.
96 reviews38 followers
May 22, 2018
Nobody knows the name of the painter that has arrived to the Monastery in Saint-Rémy, which has become an assylum for the troubled mind.

However, soon gossip about the painter savage red hair and the story of his severed ear fills the talking of the women in the market of the village. As you soon see, the painter is not other than Vincent Van Gogh.

After the turbulent life with Gaughin, who is accused of sending Vincent to madness, he looks for refuge in the French countryside.

Jeanne Trabuc is the wife of the warden of the assylum. Although she knows that entiring the hospital is prohibited , she feels attracted by the painter, who leads her to start questioning her life, to try to understand the world from a diferent perspective.

His full-of-painted overalls, his erratic behaviour, his troubled and intense personality, change the life in the asylum, This is the time of a prolific production, being the most famour painting that he paints there 'The starry Night', which has been reproduced to the infinitum.

The power of this narrative is centred in the portray of the life of this woman, who gradually becomes more aware of her own world and the possible lives she could have had if she had taken other actions. Vincent is the the background. However, his presence is imposible to shade, his influence in Jeanne powerful and unforgettable.

mail: ana.ovejero@gmail.com
Profile Image for Kirsty.
2,703 reviews175 followers
February 22, 2017
I was so looking forward to Susan Fletcher's Let Me Tell You About a Man I Knew, particularly after so enjoying Eve Green and The Silver Dark Sea. Set in Provence in 1889, Let Me Tell You... is immediately different in its feel to the aforementioned. It focuses upon a secluded hospital, Saint-Paul-de-Mausole, which is home to the mentally ill. Jeanne Trabue, the wife of the warden, becomes entranced by a new resident, a painter, named Vincent van Gogh.

The sense of place and the characters who live within it have been wonderfully evoked; everything comes to life under Fletcher's deft hand. There is an almost startling realism to the whole. I didn't know, before I began, that the novel featured van Gogh, but it pleased me greatly, wanting, as I do, to read more fictionalisations of artists and their muses. Let Me Tell You... is incredibly enjoyable, and I struggled to put it down. Highly recommended.
Profile Image for Renita D'Silva.
Author 10 books328 followers
May 13, 2018
Beautiful and haunting. A brilliantly imagined window into the little known history of Van Gogh when he was hospitalised in France.
Profile Image for Nicola Worley.
184 reviews1 follower
July 15, 2022
This is the story of Jeanne Trabuc, a real person, wife of Charles Trabuc who was warden at the asylum in Saint-Rémy, where Vincent Van Gogh was a patient. Jeanne was painted by Van Gogh in his piece ‘Portrait of Madame Trabuc.’

This book gives an insight to the painter himself during the time where he produced his finest work, but was perhaps at his most ill. But it’s so much more than that - this is a slow, gentle book, and the focus is on Jeanne, not Van Gogh. The story is of her quiet life, and written with contemplation and tenderness, it describes the unsaid things in a long marriage, the desire to be seen, and of unexpected friendship at a time where both Jeanne and Vincent needed it most.

“The heart, she thinks, is the painter. Love, and moments like this, are the art. The Dutchman taught her that.”
Profile Image for Elena.
283 reviews15 followers
November 15, 2021
Aunque no me arrepiento de haberlo leído, me parece una novela muy irregular y que podría haber dado para más. La trama mezcla dos historias, la de una mujer de mediana edad atrapada en una vida monótona a finales del siglo XIX y la de esa misma mujer que conoce al pintor Van Gogh por casualidad. La autora debería haberse decidido solo por una porque el conjunto chirría un poco, como si no acabasen de combinar bien del todo ambas historias.

El estilo narrativo es muy lírico y bonito, pero abusa demasiado de las frases muy cortas separadas por puntos, algo que para mi gusto rompe la fluidez de la lectura.
Profile Image for Paul Snelling.
206 reviews2 followers
January 23, 2023
Not so much a book about Vincent van Gogh, more about his role as a catalyst in the marriage of Charles Trabuc – the warden of the hospital where Vincent becomes a patient – and his Jeanne, who is the main character. Though short, the novel is profound and beautifully written, as Jeanne gradually finds herself and finally challenges her position within an orthodox and constrained marriage. Highly recommended.
Profile Image for Sophie Elinor.
145 reviews
October 5, 2022
Wonderfully imaginative, bringing art history to life. I was enchanted by the characters of Jeanne, Charles and Vincent. That area of France felt so foreign it could of been thousands of miles away. This was a story of a year in the life of Vincent but was also an equally interesting story ofJeanne, an ordinary French woman, and was a story of love in all its forms.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for Marion Leeper.
28 reviews1 follower
August 7, 2021
Really interesting story novel about van Gogh in the asylum at St. Remy. It's written to give the impression that the heroine's entire life story can be teased out of a single portrait that van Gogh painted of her - which makes it in some ways a great novelisation of this period of van Gogh's life and in other ways really cliche-ridden.
June 19, 2016
More detailed review to come. Meanwhile...
I had doubts about this fictionalised life of Van Gogh during the year he spent at the asylum of Saint-Rémy-de Provence after the crisis during which he cut his ear in Arles. The press advert claimed it to be family with "Girl with pearl earring " and the last Donna Tartt's because they both dealt with other Dutch painters -Vermeer and Fabritius.
No need to be cautious and no real family links with the other books. Most of all, no need to claim for some.
The book is good. Good story, good structure, good style. It is sensual in the sense that you feel the heat of Provence, you smell the warm wheat and olive trees, you breathe the dust, feel the baked earth, touch the bark of the trees or the spear-like leaves of irises, listen to the howl of the mistral, taste the juicy fruits in your mouth, see the colours of Van Gogh's paintings as well as the colours of what he painted. All senses are awake.
Or they are awoken or re-awoken.
Near the asylum, in a white cottage, live the warden, Charles Trabuc, and his wife, Jeanne, born and raised in Arles, nearby. Jeanne and Vincent meet. Through Vincent's paintings and through his talks with him, Jeanne will rediscover and re-appropriate her past to herself. From this past, she will understand her present and be able to create a future as Van Gogh creates a world from the smallest things around him - a moth - or those landscapes seen through the bars of his room.
A very good book that starts slowly and slowly grows upon the reader. Van Gogh's story is known and true to the facts as shown by his letters to his brother Théo. Jeanne's story is mostly fictional but it is a powerful study of a woman's life.
And again, I would praise the structure of the book and the style - images, details, metaphors, nothing is gratuitous; all has a sense and tends to the building of the story.
This is a new title released from Virago Press. I thank them for the complimentary copy that I received in exchange of a fair and true review.
342 reviews13 followers
May 18, 2016
The story of Vincent Van Gogh who was confined to the asylum of Saint Paul de Mausole in Provence as seen through the eyes of Jeanne Trabuc who was the wife of the warden. Jeanne and her husband Charles are as much prisoners of the asylum as the inmates as they struggle to find staff and money to maintain this dilapidated building, along with the ageing nuns who help treat and nurse the patients.
Jeanne found her hopes and dreams crushed on the outside of the asylum as much as those on the inside suffered. Her children have left home and she feels neglected by her husband, who is consumed with the urge to keep her safe and kept away from the horrors of the world and she is forbidden to visit the asylum. Charles fought at Sebastapol and he is haunted by these war experiences. When Vincent becomes a patient, Jeanne rebels against her husband and talks to and encourages Vincent in his painting and together they heal each other. Then Jeanne can make peace with Charles, as the threat of leaving him forces him to open up about his war years.
Vincent committed suicide once he left the asylum and tried to rejoin the modern world, perhaps the stresses and cares were too much for his fragile mind and spirit.
I greatly enjoyed this book, both undemanding yet strangely compulsive to read. The sunshine and sights of Provence were so beautifully described and lifted the heart and spirit of this reader. Certain phrases almost told the story of Vincent Van Gogh as in the song by Don Maclean.
This is a story of love being rediscovered and the recovery of both marriage and health through the power of Art and paintings. I have read this book from NetGalley and Little Brown Book in exchange for my honest opinion and I do recommend this to you.
Profile Image for Gem BookEater.
81 reviews8 followers
May 30, 2016
It is 1889 and the hospital of Saint-Paul-de Mausole, home to the mentally ill, has a new patient. A passionate artist with copper-red hair but only half an ear.

The warden of the hospital has rules for his wife to keep her safe from the patients. She must never stray from their little white cottage next door into the grounds without him by her side. But tales of this man’s odd mixture of insanity and self-awareness are too intriguing for Jeanne Trabuc to resist. Especially when she has nothing else to occupy her, her children are grown and her only friend gone.

She climbs over the hospital wall, watches him while he paints in the heat of the day, and starts a relationship that will change her life.

Let Me Tell You About A Man I Knew is the perfect holiday read. It winds it way gently through the inner workings of Jeanne Trabuc’s life in Provence while letting you feel the heat on her skin, hear the buzz of the bees and taste the sweet honey that only such a verdant blanket of land can produce.

It lulls you to doze but gives you the wisest dreams. I was drawn back to this hypnotic read every spare second I had. To be completely frank this has very little action, if you like high octane thrillers or chilling ghost stories this probably wouldn’t do it for you. But if you want to really get to know what makes a character tick, and you want to feel like you are living in the country in the summer, then this is perfect!

It’s real message is how love and life can change over time, and Susan Fletcher writes this exquisitely.

NB I received a free copy of this book from the publishers in return for an honest review. The BookEaters always write honest reviews
Profile Image for Brian.
Author 48 books144 followers
May 18, 2016
Set in Provence at the end of the nineteenth century, this is the story of the arrival of at the hospital of Saint-Paul-de Mausole of an unusual patient, a painter who has caused outrage in the nearby town of Arles by fraternizing with prostitutes, by wandering into the town completely naked, and by cutting off half his ear. He is, of course, Vincent Van Gogh.

But this is not Vincent's story, it is the story of Jeanne Trabuc, wife of the hospital's chief warden, a woman whose world has been steadily diminishing with the departure of her children and her husband's withdrawal into his work. The exotic, unpredictable new patient, and the extraordinary paintings that he produces, changes the way she views her world:

Jeanne looks beyond the yard. The sun has caught Les Alpilles, lightening their western sides. In the groves, too, she sees at that moment that the western side of every tree is golden with sunshine, row upon row, and there's a brightness in the depths of the waist-high grass.

When she is forbidden to talk to him her frustration provokes a rebellion against the narrow passivity that is expected of her and a crisis in her marriage.

There is a pleasing sense of authenticity about this novel. Susan Fletcher writes with a delicate intensity, lingering over the small details of domestic life and shining a painterly light on the landscape.
Profile Image for Rebecca Griffiths.
Author 6 books112 followers
March 18, 2018
A truly beautiful book about loss and love and the grief that is the human condition. Reading it saved me during a truly dark few weeks in my own life, and for this, I shall forever be grateful to this wonderful author.

Reading about Jeanne, and being able to live alongside her in that sun-filled part of France all those lifetimes ago, gave me somewhere to go in my head ... her world and her life, was, for a little while, a better place than mine to dwell. I felt so deeply for this ageing woman, that I know she will stay with me long after finishing this beautiful, tender, and poetically-written novel.
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